Blogs > Liberty and Power > Iraq: Is This the Beginning of a “People’s War”?

Apr 9, 2004 10:11 am

Iraq: Is This the Beginning of a “People’s War”?

The article of mine below, with photo, will appear in the Asheville Citizen-Times, NC, Sunday edition. If it appears a bit dated at this point, it is because it was originally written a week ago. A shorter version was posted yesterday by the Independent Institute at

Iraq: Is This the Beginning of a “People’s War”?

By William Marina

The death and mutilation of four American private contractors in the Sunni dominated city of Fallujah was followed by the subsequent uprising in at least six cities across Iraq by some of the more radical elements of the Shia militia. The early American response to events in Fallujah was a promise that “we will pacify that city.”

Now the nationalistic uniting of the two religious groups, suggests the insurgency has taken a significant step toward a situation perhaps best described as a “people’s war.” Even the police trained by the U.S. have retreated in the face of this uprising, with some reported to have given their flack jackets to the militia.

With less than two months left until the promised return of some powers to the Iraqis, the increased militarization of the situation means probably more American troops and an uncertain future.

How did the explosive events of the last week come to pass?

The Shiite uprising was caused by the U.S. occupation authority’s closing of a Shiite newspaper for printing allegedly false stories, the arrest of the militant cleric, Moktada al-Sadr’s chief aide, and the issue of an arrest warrant for Sadr.

These events clearly precipitated the crisis; the real question is why did our proconsul, Paul Bremer, choose to do this?

Rumors are rife in Washington that the military was concerned that its role in Iraq would soon diminish as diplomats sought to build some kind of legitimacy leading toward June 30th. If that is so, then clearly the short run winners have been the Iraqi radicals and the American military, because we are now faced with the widespread insurgency, many hoped to avoid.

Only a little over a year ago, neo-conservative pundits were assuring the American people that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq would be a piece of cake. (General Eric Shenseki was sacked from command for suggesting otherwise.)

One of those was Max Boot, a journalist formerly with The Wall Street Journal and now with the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Boot's fame rests upon his book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars & the Rise of American Power (2002), which made him, apparently, a kind of instant neo-con guru on these kind of interventionist counterinsurgencies. One chapter in that volume, based essentially on secondary sources, recounted the U.S. defeat of the Filipino insurgency a century ago.

Few seemed to disagree when Boot put that forward as a model to be followed in Iraq. In the early months of the occupation of Iraq, he visited there, returning with glowing accounts of U.S. success. The neo-cons did not mention that other American intervention, Vietnam, which was a military disaster, and hardly an example of nation-building.

But Iraq and the Philippines are very different. For example, the insurgents in Iraq, while apparently lacking the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration claimed existed, have no shortage of conventional weapons. The Filipinos, on the other hand, were extremely short of them. One might argue that the turning point in the Filipino insurrection came before it had actually begun--when U.S. diplomatic pressure was sufficient to dissuade the Japanese from shipping 5,000 rifles to the insurgents. Our"Benevolent Pacification," as we called it, resulted in the death of 220,000 Filipinos, with 2,000 Americans killed.

How is it that the United States again finds itself in an incipient insurgency with so little real study of past conflicts? In the case of the Philippines, Captain John R. M. Taylor tried for years to get his five-volume study published, arguing in the late 1930s that we might need it in case the U.S. was ever involved in another guerrilla war in Asia.

Fissures existed among the Filipino revolutionary coalition, and the U.S. was able to exploit these to eventually quash the rebellion. The U.S. counterinsurgency also was helped immeasurably by the Filipinos’ choice to fight a more conventional war rather than a real guerrilla insurgency, or people's war.

But a people’s war is what the Iraqis, especially the majority Shia, are now preparing to exploit in the face of a continued American occupation.

The first step in such a war, as can be seen in the Shia’s destruction of the Iraqi village of Kiwali, is to make certain that the Iraqi population understands that there will be no"free riders," and that the population will commit to the side of the insurgents. That process, if it succeeds, will take a while, as it did in the American Revolution against Great Britain. If that occurs in Iraq, helped by a popular reaction to U.S. counter-violence, ours will, indeed, be a very long intervention and occupation.

The insurgents are now also making it clear that Coalition partners and contract companies will not have a cheap ride either. With insurance policies going up by 300%, how many besides V.P. Cheney's old company, Halliburton (now KBR) will choose to stay the course? And, our service men and women, not paid $100,000 to $200,000 for enlisting as are private contractors, are becoming increasingly disillusioned as well. The 15,000 private contractor “security guards” are almost double the 8,000 British soldiers there.

The US military has announced that it is not waiting until the end of this war to assess its successes and mistakes, but is already involved in a Strategic Study of the intervention in Iraq. Given our propensity to use the term"pacify," and its continuity to earlier imperial counterinsurgencies, it will be interesting to see if we select that term to characterize our new program in Iraq.

In the Philippines, of course, we called it,"Benevolent Pacification," and in Vietnam only"Pacification," but the latter was the exact same term adopted by the British in America in 1778, after some American leaders had rejected their peace overtures in favor of Empire -- seeking to gain Florida and Canada as well.

By far the bloodiest part of the War came after that.

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